Travel in the Spiritual Worlds
The limits of reductionism as a methodology
The history of idealizing scientific reductionism and its promise of producing scientific breakthroughs stretches back all the way to the Early Modern period in Philosophy. Scientists often seem to believe they on the verge of very important discoveries, and that explaining one system will bring us knowledge of previously mysterious derivative systems that are causally related the first one. It is hoped that the behavior of dependent or tightly linked systems will be found to be reducible to the laws and processes of the foundational system on which they depend.
A modern example of this is the claim that consciousness is an epiphenomenon of (or reducible to) brain chemistry. This is a faith claim for a significant number of neurologists.
One response to reductionist "brain science" is to use an electronic receiver as an analogy for the human brain to show how such a device could distort a signal received based on faulty circuitry. This is similar to the way that neurologists can show that brain damage or brain stimulation alters the behavior of the brain and therefore the person's perceptions and behavior. The transpersonal psychologist Dr. Stanislav Grof gives a common critique of neurological reductionism using a television as an example:A good television repair man can look at a particular distortion of a picture or sound of a television set and tell us exactly what is wrong with it and which parts must be replaced to make the set work properly again. No one would see this as proof that the set itself is responsible for the programs we can see when we turn it on. Yet this is precisely the kind of argument that mechanistic science offers as "proof" that consciousness is produced by the brain. (The Holotropic Mind, Stanislav Grof, HarperSanFrancisco Publishers, 1992, pp. 5)
The fact that brain activity can be altered by injury or changing the brain's "circuitry" does not mean that this cellular hardware is the exclusive source of the brain's activity or of consciousness in the individual. Rather the physical brain may merely receive, transmit, filter, and in some cases distort the signals that produce conscious experience.
Looking historically at scientific reductionism, researchers and theorists in Philosophy (John Locke), Psychology (B. F. Skinner and modern neuropsychologists), genetics, and physics have often been overly optimistic in predicting what certain scientific discoveries could do to help explain other related systems.
For instance, John Locke said if we had microscopical eyes (i.e., excellent microscopes) we could observe all the movements of atoms in a given system. Using the billiard ball analogy (atoms are like balls on a pool table), all we would need to know is the mass, speed, and direction of all the atoms (or subatomic particles) in the system and we could predict what the system would look like in a second, an hour, or in 100 years. Locke believed we would be able to predict future events when we could examine the microscopic world in sufficient detail. But microscopes, no matter how precise, did not bring perfect knowledge of the future, even in simple systems.
Atomic and subatomic particles turned out to be more complex than Locke believed. They sometimes acted like objects (billiard balls) and sometimes like waves (spontaneously diffracting, or dispersing and fanning out without being affected by other particles). The billiard ball analogy was not applicable. Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle further complicated subatomic systems by proving that one could never know precisely the mass, speed, and direction of subatomic particles, and that the act of measuring disturbed the system being measured further upsetting the notion of an objective universe that could be precisely known and predicted.
Similarly in genetics, it was believed that knowledge of the human genome would lead to a speedy understanding of a wide range of diseases and the production of drugs to combat those diseases. Some scientists believed that many or most diseases could be caused by or reduced to the presence of genetic malformations. Researches have since stated with some disappointment that a decade after the genome became available, "few genome-derived targets have led to approved drugs".
As the New York Times reported in their June 14, 2010 article titled "Awaiting the Genome Payoff":That is nothing like the cornucopia of new drugs that some experts predicted the genome project would yield. A decade ago, drug companies spent billions of dollars equipping themselves to harness the newly revealed secrets of human biology. Investors bid the stocks of tiny genomics companies to stratospheric heights. That "genome bubble" has long since popped.The genome only represents the static structure of the individual's genetic makeup. The process that occurs when this genetic material starts developing into a human fetus may be an order of magnitude or two more complex than the genome itself. Knowing the static genome did not reveal to scientists as much as they thought it would about the diseases that human beings are subject to and their cures. Organisms are dynamic entities that do not seem to be reducible to their genetic material and its static structure after all, and knowing the precise contents of one system (the genome) does not seem to tell us much as we expected about the developed human organism (a tightly linked or derivative system). Organisms and many of their diseases do not seem to be directly reducible to their genetic structure. This seems to be yet another failure of scientific reductionism as a methodology. Only time will tell if this is a short-term limitation, or something that can be overcome with more research.
In yet another example, Behaviorism as a psychological method of predicting behavior was another promising theory that has led to disappointing results. The author had a discussion with the chair of psychology of a large research university more than thirty years ago. This professor was a Behaviorist who believed that society's ills could be cured by instituting the proper mass conditioning schedule. He believed that the problem with society was that the individuals in it were "randomly conditioned". If we could only control the conditioning process, we could create an orderly (predictable) and even ideal society.
In a different discussion with a researcher who worked in B. F. Skinner's lab, this researcher told the author that operant conditioning in the lab seemed to make a subject's behavior predictable up to a point and then the predictability would suddenly cease, and anomalies would occur that could not be explained. He said he later studied chaos theory and went back to review his old Skinnerian lab data. He concluded that individual behavior followed the basic rules of chaos theory and remained predictable only within certain constraints. Its predictable nature then suddenly and unexpectedly broke down and ceased to be predictable. The naive idea in Behaviorism that conditioning could make an individual's behavior predictable was disproven. Human behavior could not be predicted by or reduced to a stimulus-response conditioning schedule.
There exists the simple notion that larger or macro systems are made up of other hidden micro systems and that a more thorough understanding of these foundational systems will help us predict the behavior of the macro systems. But general or special relativity and quantum mechanics and the increasing knowledge of subatomic particles (the micro level) has not seemed to help much in understanding chemistry or biochemistry or biology for that matter (the macro level). In fact there is so little relationship between the subatomic world of Einstein and the classical views of chemistry and biology that it sometimes seems as though the breakthroughs of 20th century physics never occurred at all. The clear exceptions to this is the physics and chemistry of nuclear energy and perhaps nanotechnology and materials science use some of the advanced principles of subatomic physics. The interest in quantum computing is also a clear exception.
Reductionism, a basic principle of science has been a disappointment in many of the above areas. And now we have a new form of reductionism in the study of neurology. The theory goes like this: If we could figure out brain chemistry, we could solve all the individual's psychological problems with a pill. The talking cure (psychotherapy) would become obsolete. There is a naive idealism in scientists who seem to always be discovering a new aspect of science that they hope will bring a kind of salvation, and remake the world for the suffering into a world of beauty and happiness. The common reduction of lucid dreaming, OBEs, near-death experience, mystical experience, and consciousness itself to brain states and brain chemistry is part of this recurring hope.
It is a worthy goal to try to understand these phenomena in order to help the suffering by for instance curing insanity or disease. But doing such reductionism to support one's preferred would view or entertain fantasies of scientifically controlling human behavior (such as with Behaviorists) or large swaths of the universe is less laudable. In either case, the history of scientific reductionism and the grand theories that arise in the process of seeking scientific breakthroughs have not always been that promising as we have shown in the above examples.
Given reductionism's failures in the past, we might expect that the properties of human awareness and religious states of consciousness may turn out to be sui generis and not reducible to the attributes and qualities of physical matter or biological systems.
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